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Ken Coates

The unions

(Autumn 1961)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 6, Autumn 1961, pp. 29–30.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Trade Union Officers
H.A. Clegg, A.J. Killinck, and Rex Adams
Basil Blackwell. 32s 6d.

This book is indispensable to any student of Trade Unions in Great Britain. It is an enquiry into the structure of trade union administration, which is adequately described by its subtitle: A study of Full-Time Officers, Branch Secretaries, and Shop Stewards in British Trade Unions.

Whatever else is to the credit of the authors of this book, their attempts to make accurate estimates of the numbers of people working for and on behalf of trade unionism must rank among their greatest merits. According to their calculations, there are some 80,000 stewards, whose numbers are augmented by something like 10,000 branch negotiators. They estimate that there are about 2,500 full-time officers, or a ratio of about one to every 4,000 members. Of these some 30% hope to be promoted, although the ambitious are unevenly scattered: 49% of the T&GW’s full-timers are ‘aspiring’ officers, while in the skilled unions the figure falls to as low as 12%. More than half the officers would like their sons to follow in their footsteps. The officers who want promotion tend to rate their social status as being lower than do those who are not seeking advancement.

Interesting though these findings are, the findings about stewards are more interesting. Stewards average some eleven hours a week on union business, six of them in working-time. Most of this time is spent treating with management, from foreman-level up. Four-fifths of those studied lost no earnings because of their union work, although five percent lost over £1 a week. Nearly a third would like to be elected to a full-time job, and two-thirds thought that their social standing would rise (as well as their earnings) if they were elected. Personnel officers would far rather negotiate with stewards than with full-time officials – or at least, the 72 big-firm, multi-plant personnel officers who answered the authors’ questions would. ‘This and other evidence’ say the authors, ‘leads us to suppose that the power of shop stewards in British industry has been fostered by management.’

There are very many other important things to be found in this book. Missing is any attempt to get to grips with the structure of the shop stewards’ movement, as opposed to the trade union hierarchy: but this is a vast subject which requires at least a book on its own. We need to know how stewards organise themselves, raise funds, how widespread are effective links between stewards’ committees in the same firm and in the same industry; and the answer to such questions as these does not emerge from this account. The collection of information about particularly lively stewards’ committees is not just an interesting job for the historian: it is an indispensable part of the struggle to generalise the most efficient shop-floor organisation, and to help in the political development of what is still the most significant rank-and-file movement in this country, for all that it is not yet a socialist movement. But though we must go beyond Clegg and his collaborators, both in our researches and in our vision and activity, nonetheless we should thank them for a clear and accurate picture of a field that is commonly fogged by prejudice and wishful thinking.

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Last updated: 25.9.2013